Whoa! Innovation unlimited in the consumer computing space…

It’s been a fascinating period, technology-wise. Form factors have changed and parts we thought were fossilized have been dusted, given face lifts and are back looking smarter than ever.

A quick recap:

Apple decided to make the iPad smaller, so we have a smaller tablet, the iPad mini now. And they’ve brought back the 4:3 aspect ratio (everybody else sports the cinematographic 16:1 these days). And by the way, this is not a bug (they say it increases display area very significantly). It’s also got a great tag line depicting the experience – “there’s less of it, but no lessto it”.

Samsung’s decided to make the phone a little bigger – let’s welcome the new phablet Galaxy Note II. Oh God! they have also brought back part II of the stylus and it looks cooler than ever (the newly christened s-pen!). So much for Steve’s quipon the best pointing devices in the world…

Amazon has decided to put a custom amazon shop in everyone’s home and called it the Kindle Fire – and priced it at zero margins – maybe they reasoned supermarkets don’t price for the use of their shopping carts! If this move succeeds massively (and it does seem to be happening), maybe the company should call itself the Amazing Amazon?

Google showcased its beautiful chromebook at a fraction of the Mac air’s price. From a feature and capabilities standpoint, it could very well be called the cloud book (and it comes with lots of Dropbox space too) – and interestingly rather than adding, they’ve left stuff out (their new architecture allows them to knock off the fan and also become much slimmer) and decided in favor of a Samsung chip. A new ecosystem brewing here?

Microsoftprobably deserves the biggest space. Newly architected hardware( the surface), a new OS which promises a seamless operation between form factors – they are certainly headliners this year. Very interestingly, they brought back the keyboard. Instead of opening out a new genre of computing machines, have they collapsed the PCs and Tablets into one category now?

This seems to be a most interesting period in the timeline of personal computing device innovation. Computer-human interaction has increased, home-work life is blurring, SoLoMo technologies bring context like never before into the picture – and these innovations reflect the evolving times. The question of whether we will adapt to an-always-online, always-visible world or whether we will make the devices adapt to our requirements (and free up our time and lives because of the increased context and on demand nature of these innovations)is of course a matter for debate – as always…

Defining moments

Defining moments – you’ve got to think about them with a bit of nostalgia.

Picture our ancestral man walking in the woods completely at the mercy of nature. He worships her and hopes she will be kind to him. He prays, pleads and cherishes nature – for he knows this is her eternal playground and he is but a player who can make hay only when the sun shines.

And then one day, a nerdy one from his community comes up with a contraption which tilts the balance a little in his favor. He can now do more with less and he lays his achievement at the feet of his god. Ploughs, clubs (the animal beating kind not the trance inducing kind!) and fire are very early examples of such inventions. Man basked in glory with his invention and nature smiled in acknowledgement of his genius.

Over time, the machines take over and nature often gets displaced from the equation, indeed she has become fodder to the machines in several cases. Think about it – cars and phones have made distance irrelevant, air-conditioning and heaters have softened weather extremities and so on. The ozone layer, fossil fuels and precious metals are fast becoming endangered – but without doubt, the inventions they have enabled have improved material quality of life, saved numerous lives and put people on the moon.

To me, the second phase is always intriguing – the one where nature still ruled but man exhibited his brilliance and excelled. This man travelled where no man had gone before and could truly feel he had hit a home run (in the third phase, I suppose the machines could feel the same way too!). There are a few of the wonderful inventions from yesteryear we can experience even today – and when we do, we experience a bit of the joy that our very proud ancestor must have felt in those very early days.

The “Inland” letters: Think back a few hundred years. Man had to make long arduous journeys (or coax his traveler pigeons!) to communicate with his loved ones. It was only the fit and the adventurous that could make such journeys and a messenger could take with him but brief notes from the entire tribe. Just facts were shared – there wasn’t enough technology to be able to share emotions yet.

The age of the post office dawned then and allowed for low-cost, elaborate, emotional communication. Handcrafted letters to your loved ones and greetings to brighten up special occasions were the order of the day – a state of affairs that continued till the dawn of this century. People spent time choosing the type of paper (also the pen and the ink) and spent quality time composing letters that spoke volumes and were cherished by the receiver. Many from the “letter generation” have collections that they hold very dearly to this day.

If this seems like a cool thing, why not share a personalized (yes you could use your tablet too!) thoughtful message to a loved one today? How do we know its personalized – check the distribution list (it should be singular!), check the address and signature (it should not be auto signature) and ask yourself if the person concerned deserves a hand-written note (if he/she does you are bang on target).

Bicycles: The invention of the bicycle must have been a momentous moment for man who could suddenly travel twice or thrice the distance he could cover earlier in the same amount of time with ease. The bicycle still required him to pedal though (gears came much later!) and he couldn’t cycle on rough roads or in very bad weather. It wasn’t man vs machine vs nature, but rather a partnership that stretched the limits of man and machine and helped him do more with nature.

The bicycle even today brings in this feeling – almost mystical – of experiencing the fast paced world without sacrificing one’s humanness. You feel the road and its surface bumps (especially if you have one of those modern ones which don’t have suspensions!), you can see (and smell) the multi-colored hues on the vegetable seller’s stalls, sense the excitement in the old couple rushing to catch the bus home for dusshera and the prayers on the children’s lips hoping for a miracle (for the school to be declared a holiday!). You can also feel the stark indifference from the cars (and the big SUVs) which scream past, windows locked, music and mobiles on – they are there beside you on the road but the electronics (and machines) are a pied piper of our times – and have claimed these folks into their virtual world.

Now, here’s the thing – these reflections do not demand binary responses – you don’t need to replace your mercedes with a bicycle. You don’t need to replace sending hundreds of emails addressed to tons of people with personalized messages – you cannot do so nor would our relationship with most of the recipients be intimate enough to deserve a personalized message (just yet).

To complement our very busy life though, if could bring in a few moments where we get to experience some of these “defining and human” moments – our lives would be much richer. At these moments, we are truly alive with nature, machine and man in true equilibrium – and the symmetry does bring a smile to your face.

Lose control……or have we already?

Lose control! screams the radio and the brief silence that follows seems to indicate that the advice has been taken by whoever it was targeted at. For most of mankind though, I think this is stating the obvious – we have lost control way back – and maybe more pertinently, we probably never had it in the first place!

Let’s start with me and you can agree as we go along.

Here’s an obvious fact – my job determines my financial security (or so I am told). However, my paycheck depends not only on my work but for a large part on how the market views my company’s (and countries and industry and numerous other things) performance. I for one have no clue how the market works and the quants (and the folks at wall street and their comrades worldwide) seem to be equally clueless on how the markets work, if the recent bubbles and troubles are anything to go by. Seems to me if a housing bubble in the US can derail Iceland – we should view Financial security like we do santa – we need some great parents to ensure holidays continue to charm.

The family – of course that’s under our control – you say? If you were ever a teenager or have a teenager at home, we don’t have to be debating this further – and if you still don’t believe me, ask your mother! Of course, you could have a semblance of control in a paternal society especially if you were the pater….but even so, you know this is but a temporary phenomena….

Onto more universal stuff – namely the five building blocks of air, water, fire, ether and earth as postulated by the ancients. These are controlled it appears, but not by you. Samsung (or your air conditioner company) determines the quality of air you breathe (global warming, pollution and such of course also contribute much) , the government determines how much water you deserve (and of course what additives the water should have, so it’s not even h2o in the strictest sense anymore). We’ve experienced the earth second-hand through cement and concrete for so long that we’ve collectively forgotten what it means to walk barefoot on earth and watch the sky (the atrium takes its place now!). Fire – we experience through our bunsen cookers and cigar lighters. Ether (which is meant to be the fundamental substratum in which everything’s present) – we don’t even worry about – and if we do, our new age gurus help us with the introductions at 500 bucks a pop. These truly aren’t fundamental building blocks from our perspective anymore – and the only way we can control (or even be informed) about any of these is through the middle man and our TV box..

Our own body, we don’t know much about anyway. Our heart beats and we breathe in oxygen – until of course we stop doing so. We (and our doctors) can and should help do everything possible for a richer, healthier life – but you can’t guarantee life – the strings are held truly by a higher power (or chance if you are an atheist).

Let’s take a pause – If you have popped in before into this blog, you are probably wondering what recent event has so skewed my normally positive outlook of life (“do you think he lost the lottery again by a single digit dear?” you ask). Is this my most depressing post ever? Maybe. Looked another way though, it’s perhaps my most liberating effort too. Let me explain.

Last week, I drifted down to the temple and gazed at the numerous portraits of enlightened men and women they had placed on the major hall. There were close to 40 folks – of all shapes and sizes. Some sages were muscular, some frail. Some were bearded, some clean shaven and bald. There were householders and renunciates, educated folks and simpletons – all beaming down upon us from their frames. And just as I was wondering what could be the one thing that made these folks revered (while millions of their fellow men and women have been lost in the dust of history), my attention moved on to their countenance. Without exception, they all seemed serene and mirthful, and had a twinkle in their eyes. It was as if they shared a secret, but it was so open that they were filled with wonder on how we didn’t get it.

What could this secret be I wondered..and wondered. And the more I thought about it, the Gita kept playing over and over in my mind. The gita for those not acquainted with it takes place amidst a dramatic background of war where the lord Krishna advices a forlorn warrior king Arjuna over the course of 600 aphorisms to fight the rightful fight(Arjuna, a supreme warrior on the eve of the war with his cousins wonders if it’s really worth it – would it not be better to just give up the fight and retire than win the kingdom – rightful though it may be – at the cost of countless lives). The lord advices the warrior king to do his job (fight!) and leave the results to providence – for it is the fear of poor results that often prevents us from giving our best.

Could this be the secret – could these wise souls be counseling us to – “accept that there’s a lot of stuff that’s not in your control, but go give it your best anyway”. The stress and strain of life ebb away, leaving us with the zest and energy for the job alone without squandering energy fretting over the outcome.

Thought this way, we have options galore before us:

– dont fret when you are snubbed by those around you, they are outside your span of control. Continue cultivating good friendships and see where that leads you

– don’t be obsessed about how long you are going to live, the end of the world or a bad politician. Take care of your health, contribute to a greener world and vote – but accept the fact that the results are not under your control. Of course Nostradamus and your neighborhood astrologer aren’t going to be pleased…

– don’t lose your cool over a traffic jam. Or over a bad show by your favorite team (fill in the blanks with nba, ipl, epl or whatever works for you) or index (sensex, nse..). Cheer them, but don’t let your happiness depend on the outcome of these events.

That’s a lot of stress out of the way. And I think a very sensible way to live life – maybe you already live life this way and if so, you must be a very happy soul indeed.

Which brings me to the moment. Here I am standing in front of my boss’s office just about to deliver some bad news. I wonder if he’ll buy the argument that it was beyond my control..maybe I’ll just put the blame on the tantalum market in Congo and get away with it…

The biking chronicles – at the shop…

I seem to remember that sleeping beautyslumbered for a hundred years before her prince arrived and woke her up. And then – says the story – they lived happily ever after.I suspect though that they left out a little bit on that fairy tale. I am sure our beauty would also have been startled to see her baby-nephew (as she knew him before she went a sleeping) walking in with a bent back, aged hair and a walking stick. She must have been amazed to see the horse carriage of her pre-slumber somehow transformed into a gleaming jaguar. And so on….

Now I bring this up because I felt just like sleeping beauty must have after that wonderous,long sleep (of course I didn’t feel half so beautiful, but certainly twice as rattled) when I walked into the bike shop the other day.

For starters, get this straight – today’s bikes are way more complicated than your cars. Your car could have 5,6 or 7 gears (any more and the engineers simplify and make it an automatic which would mean just one gear to contend with); your bike on the other hand is likely to have 21 or more. Your car can be only one of 4 types:

– a big bad guzzler (read suv),

– a sleek toy to win the admirers over (sports car),

– a hatch (now what does it hatch by the way?)

or the one one with a tail (sedan).

The bikes though have many, many categories. You can choose yours based on
– size (small, medium or large – maybe they even have an extra large like you’d prefer your coffee – and the beers)

– usage (mountain – never mind there’s none within a 100 radius, road or hybrid),

– metals used (titanium, carbon, alloy and many such more you can make sense of only if you still remember the periodic tablethey taught you back at school),

– foldable (yes you read that right – there are bikes you can fold and carry on your backpack, try that with your car)…..

“Sir, would you prefer a carbon fork?” asks the sales guy cutting into my reverie…

I am confused. Do they now serve cutlery on bikes too – “Truth be told, I’d prefer steel or plastic better” I haltingly reply.

Now he looks a little surprised and then sizes me up.

“You new to b-i-k-e world?” he queries spelling each letter like you would to a toddler (and one not quite as smart as the honesttoddler at that!). When I answer in the affirmative, I seem to notice a gleam in his eye while he excuses himself to meet with his comrades and plan on how to make this deal count (I suspect he also called his wife and promised her some jewellery as he sees some fat commissions come his way…).

Here’s the third bomb. Bikes follow the “management by subtraction” logic unlike cars. So while you’d pay more for a car that has more features, you pay most for a bike that has less (except for the gears of course, still wondering why they need 21 of those..).

I soon end up with a bike sans a bell (and that too in India – even the circus mono-cycles have bells here!), a stand (do I have to carry it always?), mud guards (maybe they’ll also sell me a washing machine considering its monsoon time here?), suspensions and a lot of other stuff – and a hefty price which confirms my bike is mmiddle upper class!

My mind boggles. The friend’s too – and he goes out and smokes 20 cigarettes on the trot. The sales guy comes over and pats me consolingly on the shoulder.

“Never mind, I will give you a bell, a stand, a guard, a water bottle…just don’t tell the manager”. And to make me happy he demoes a feature – the wheels on my bike are removable it appears – a feature I think I will use once every 10 years or so…

And so I exit the shop with an expensive bike, a bag consisting an even more expensive set of accessories (essentially they take everything out of the bike, put it in a bag so you can carry it on your back and then charge you twice the amount – don’t ask me why!). But there’s a silver lining – my bike comes equipped with an Indian flag (just about everything else is from Taiwan or maybe Congo for all I know).

As the wise man said, something learned (me), something earned (he) – what more can you ask on a sunny day?

Biking – The journey begins

There comes a time in everyone’s life when one wonders if one is exercising enough.

Generally (and if you are like me), the answer comes back pronto – NO!!!

I amble thoughtfully and watch some tv, thrash (metaphorically speaking) a politician or two, read a book – but the thought doesn’t go away.

So I call a few friends and confide in them – only to have them echo the same thought – they too feel they aren’t exercising enough. My glance now goes to the book shelf – where a coach is urging you to “ACT and ACT NOW!” from behind an attractive cover. Besides, from the expression on his face and the cut of his suit, you feel he knows what he’s talking about – and has the bank balance to prove it too.

I look around – the advice appeals to all of us – but what’s the best exercise for us?

“Yoga? The last time I tried that a doctor had to help me untangle my legs from my head” says friend 1

“Basketball? At your height the basket (and the ball) are always going to be out of reach” says friend 2

“Horse racing? All the horses have accompanied the punters to Srilanka for the T20 worldcup, so no dice!”says Friend1

“Soccer (or un-american football!)? If you cant swear in spanish, you’re a dead man!” says friend2(or should it noe be ex-friend2 after that last comment of his!)

So what do we have left? BIKING we say unanimously. We’ve all done it before – me in my distant school days, another during his early worklife and a third when he was a baby. We huddle and agree – cycling its going to be.
Now that we have an agreement, I pull out a Lance Armstrong poster and replace the self help guru’s book with Lance’s “Every second counts”. Is it just me or is our man in the smart suit and the attractive cover scowling now?

“But didn’t he (Lance not the self help guru) dope?” asks a concerned neightbour.

“Nope its not proved yet” I answer. “Besides if something can help you beat cancer, help you cycle a thousand mountain and snow miles year after year and provide you with enough energy to run a foundation as well – I don’t think it should be called a drug, it should be called a miracle tonic!”. On which smart repartee, I proceed to the bicycle shop to see whats on offer.

Part 2 – adventures in the bicycle shop would follow shortly….stay tuned (please!)